When show creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur were trying to decide on a location in which to set their NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation," they struggled to find the perfect state. After nixing the soaring mountains of Idaho and Montana because the scenery couldn't be re-created in Southern California, they turned their attention to the Midwest.
"What we really wanted was a state or a location that didn't skew the audience in a particular direction," Schur says.
"Obama was from Illinois, and Michigan was the car industry, which was struggling. Even Ohio had a big election kerfuffle. Indiana just seemed like a state in America that doesn't make people think in any particular direction."
They settled on the fictional town of Pawnee, Ind., as the hometown of enthusiastic local-government official Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), whose optimism about effecting change within Pawnee's parks and recreation department stands in direct contrast to the attitudes of her co-workers and supervisor. "Cynicism will always be the evil that lurks around the corner for her," says Poehler, who is also a producer on the show.
Despite the carefully chosen location, being conceived as a companion show to "The Office," for which Daniels is executive producer and Schur is co-exec, and employing a similar mockumentary style raised expectations to lofty levels. Yet "Parks and Recreation" seems to be following a similar trajectory to "The Office," which ended its freshman season in 2004-05 with a 2.5 rating and ranked 102nd among all prime-time programs, then grew to become a solid ratings performer for NBC. The critical grumbling and the carping about hewing too close to the original British version -- criticisms that have also been thrown at "Parks and Recreation" for its similarity to "The Office" -- dissipated after the second season.
The show's creators say that even though both series break the fourth wall, that doesn't make them similar in their sensibilities. "We look at [the mockumentary] as a genre," Schur says. "No one ever even noted the fact that there used to be 27 multi-camera [shows] on. It's just a storytelling device."
In fact, the pair considered several other ideas in other formats and decided the flexibility of the mockumentary would benefit the production.
"It makes production very actor-friendly in that we're not that fussy about lighting, it's all hand-held. So most of our day is spent actually performing, and that allows the actors to improvise," Daniels explains.
Although improvisation comes naturally to Poehler as well as fellow cast members Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari and Nick Offerman, each episode is completely on the page before it's shot. "The scripted version [often] ends up being the best version because we've spent 65 hours thinking about it," Schur says, "but it's fairly frequent that because they're funny people they'll beat what we've come up with."
That spirit of collaboration will be essential in further developing the city of Pawnee's cast of characters for the second season, and it's something that Schur traces to his days as a writer on "Saturday Night Live." "That show is incredibly collaborative," Schur says. "The writers and actors all work together, and you have to come up with things on the fly. [That's] the way that we like to work."
Daniels, who also spent time as a writer on "SNL," says that having so many alums from the show in NBC's prime time creates a different kind of humor. "The way a sketch writer thinks of conceptual jokes often produces a more fanciful, interesting type of humor than dialogue jokes," he explains. "The highs are a little higher sometimes."
Heading into the fall, Daniels says he's excited about the possibilities in Pawnee. "There's a lot of richness to the premise," he explains. "A lot of what we'll do next year is try and mine the potential that's there."
Poehler, who went directly from eight seasons of "SNL" to "Parks and Recreation," says she's looking forward to settling in with Leslie Knope for a while. "You never quite know if she's going to laugh or cry," Poehler says. "There's nothing cool about her -- that's why I love her."